Arvin, a young man from a small Ohio town, having lost his mum and dad to Cancer and suicide, respectively, has made it his mission to protect his remaining family. In this dour, dire town that hardly goes by plan and he spends his days chaperoning his step-sister Lenora and bashing up boys who torment her. When a new preacher comes to town, Arvin doesn’t anticipate his schemes and in the face of another suicide, he goes over the edge. Meanwhile, a thrill-seeking couple (Carl and Sandy) continue their murderous spree because Sandy’s sheriff brother turns a blind eye. How these lives converge, and what it leads to forms the movie’s crux.
Based on a 2011 book of the same name by screenplay writer Donald Ray Pollock, the proceedings faithfully follow the book – extremely grisly to begin with and too cumbersome as a movie. Pretty sure it’s this grisly murk that drew Jake Gyllenhaal to produce it.
The movie bids it own time in the build-up, which gets tiresome in places. Right from Willard Russell’s (Bill Skarsgard, with never a note wrong) nightmarish WWII days to his obsession with praying and coercing Arvin to pray at his backyard church, a trait that heightens after his wife’s Cancer diagnosis, makes you feel like a voyeur, peeping in on unfortunate neighbours. The only unnerving lesson he leaves his son is that retribution is interchangeable with justice; yet his descent into darkness is a sheer torment and his suicide stains your mind as it does little Arvin’s.
Raised by his grandma (unobjectionable Kristin Griffith) alongside another orphan Lenora (an innocent looking Eliza Scanlen) who loves Arvin (Tom Holland, rebooted and unrecognisable). He’s protective of Lenora, yet completely misses unholy Pastor Teagardin’s (Robert Pattinson transformed with creepy eyes, frilly shirts and an on point pronounced, reedy Southern drawl) wily intentions. As the narrator reveals, “when people look back on it, they had no other choice,” Arvin is drawn to exact justice in the form of murder and flees town – only to get tangled in more traps.
Every time the central story is interspersed with the tales of Carl (Jason Clarke), Sandy (Riley Keough) and Sheriff Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) and other parallel ones, the pace falters, and certain characters fall through the cracks. It’s tough to compact a book spanning two generations and several characters into one narrative, as we see here.
The cinematography reminds one of the Coen brothers and stays authentic vis-a-vis the story, lending a stifling, dour air; the background score is necessarily unobstructive. The assembly line of actors is honest, convincing and yet reduced to single characteristics oftentimes, but some do manage to shine bright. We expect wonders from Skarsgard and he doesn’t disappoint. Holland and Pattinson prove they are prepped to experiment, much to the delight of discerning audience. Holland has wiped clean his slate—can’t see him as the sweet young Peter Parker in my mind anymore.
As a child, I wasn’t smitten with Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Titanic’; but over time when I met him in ‘What’s eating Gilbert Grape’, ‘The Aviator’ and The Departed’, among others, he became a friend I would patiently await. Pattinson shows the same mettle. ‘The King’ proved it last year and this movie reinforces it. That his preacher has no motive other than to hurt and harm makes him deliciously evil and his nuanced execution of this sinister character helps Holland’s Arvin stand out as the perfect foil to this malice.
Another unmissable presence is that of the narrator, with author Pollock filling another post. His natural Southern accent is a folksy powerhouse that heightens the horrors of already violent scenes, all the while holding your hand in navigating the difficult psychological terrain.
I’ll hardly revisit the movie, given it’s a deeply disturbing, frustrating watch for the sheer volume of gory violence without a reason or a cause, that colours you at the first go. On the whole, inverse to the Gestalt theory, here the sums of the parts is greater than the whole.
Movie: The Devil All The Time (English)
Director and Screenplay Co-writer: Antonio Campos
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Kristin Griffith, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson
Runtime: 2 hours 18 minutes